SALEM, Ore. — As Congress debates the first national immigration overhaul in decades, a state-level push advancing rights for people in the U.S. illegally has picked up momentum across the country.
Among the patchwork changes to state law taking effect from Maryland to Oregon are provisions that lower tuition rates, advance employment opportunities and repeal hard-line regulations approved within the last decade.
Crowds at May Day rallies across the nation cheered the developments and urged federal progress. Legislative action in several states, meanwhile, coincided with speeches and marches.
“I have a message for Congress and the president,” said Jeff Stone, representing Oregon’s nursery industry at a rally of about 2,000 in Salem.
“Stop talking, and start acting,” he said.
Stone spoke shortly after Oregon’s Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, signed a bill that will grant immigrants the ability to drive legally in the state.
Many such state-level proposals go beyond what is being discussed on Capitol Hill, and the significant, if piecemeal, shift shows lawmakers reacting to a pendulum swing in public opinion that helped usher many of them into office. But experts also say state legislators have been spurred ahead by halting progress in Washington, D.C.
“The vacuum created by inactivity at the federal level is certainly a major factor, if not the major factor, in states’ action on this issue,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York division of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
At least 15 states are in various stages of considering bills that would further integrate immigrants, and several others already have passed such legislation this year. This group is larger than the handful of states moving the other direction, though there are exceptions.
Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he doesn’t think this year has been significantly different at the state-level than previous years because such immigration proposals have been around for more than a decade.
“It’s just states trying to deal with what they perceive to be the problem,” Mayer said.
Georgia lawmakers, for example, expanded a law passed in 2011 to crack down on illegal immigration. And Arizona and Nebraska officials have refused to grant driver’s licenses to young immigrants who are authorized to be in the country under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive.
But this is nothing compared with the political climate of recent years where anti-illegal immigration attitudes dominated the national debate.
“This is an interesting evolution,” Chishti said.
As recently as few years ago, lawmakers around the nation were passing strict regulations that made immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission the subject of police crackdowns and raids.
“The last few years were so harsh at the state level,” said Wendy Feliz, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Council.
Colorado legislators have been on both sides. In 2006, Democrats and Republicans came together and passed a law requiring local police to notify federal authorities when they arrested someone suspected of living illegally in the U.S. Last month, behind a push from newly elected Democrats, the law was repealed. Activists praised the move as especially symbolic, saying the law was precursor to more high-profile, hard-line regulations in Arizona and Alabama.
Feliz and other immigrants’ rights activists are content to support the state-by-state changes, since they can have a more immediate effect on the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
Federal legislation moves at a far slower pace in both approval and implementation. Also, proposals in the nation’s capital affect policy, such as how a person becomes a citizen. The state-level changes deal more in daily concerns, such as the cost of education.
Under laws approved recently in Colorado and Oregon, immigrant students will qualify for resident tuition rates, reducing how much they pay for school by more than two-thirds in some cases. Such DREAM Act proposals have failed repeatedly in both states in recent years.
In Minnesota, such a tuition plan easily passed the state Senate on Wednesday, hours ahead of an immigrants’ rights rally that attracted hundreds to the Capitol. The measure faces several legislative hurdles, and it has been rejected twice since 2007. But for the first time the proposal has support from the state’s governor, a Democrat who took office in 2011 following a two-term Republican who opposed the plan.
Another immigrants’ rights provision advancing in at least a dozen states allows people in the U.S. without legal permission to obtain a driver’s card. Besides Oregon, lawmakers in Illinois and Maryland passed such legislation this year, and experts predict that other states also will pass plans.
In Colorado, lawmakers on Wednesday advanced such a proposal. The legislation is likely to become law, and the House committee vote came as a May Day immigration rally drew hundreds of people to its Capitol in support of such measures despite a spring snow storm.
Notably, Texas lawmakers introduced a version of the policy just two years after passing a slate of bills tightening immigration regulations.
“This driver’s license stuff is remarkable because it was such a political issue just a few years ago,” said Jonathan Blazer of the national American Civil Liberties Union.
The business community — including Stone’s Oregon Association of Nurseries — has been a strong force behind the state’s new driving law. They say it’s an economic issue and that the proposal creates job opportunities that will boost the state.
But the changes are also politically motivated, Blazer said. To his point, voters in Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota all supported President Barack Obama in November and handed control of their statehouses to Democrats.
“If Republicans would change their stance on immigration, we would probably vote Republican,” said Victor Mena, an Oregon resident. Mena supports immigrants’ rights in part because he has family members who live in the U.S. without legal permission.
His attitude is indicative of a national trend, as more than 7 in 10 Hispanic voters supported Obama for re-election.
“Every level and stripe of every party has gotten the memo that Latinos are an important voting bloc,” said Feliz, of the American Immigration Council.
The GOP has softened its stance on the issue, evidenced by the federal immigration overhaul negotiations and the bipartisan support some state-level proposals are receiving.
Still, there are those who disagree.
“We seem to be reaching out and inviting them to stay through policies like this, rather than discouraging illegal behavior,” said Oregon Republican Rep. Kim Thatcher.
She says her state, and to a degree, her party, is moving the wrong direction on immigration.
“It’s not about appealing to voters,” Thatcher said. “I believe it’s about doing the right thing.”